JACKSON – As another Mississippi high school football season begins, this question looms as pertinent as ever: What is it about Friday nights in our state that produces the greatest players in the history of the sport?
How did small-town Mississippi high school football produce the leading passer in NFL history (Brett Favre), the leading receiver (Jerry Rice), the leading scorer (Rice again), the second leading rusher (Walter Payton) and the patriarch of the first family of American football (Archie Manning)?
And while we’re at it, let’s throw in the all-time leading yardage producer in NCAA history (Steve McNair).
These are small-town guys who grew up in Kiln, Crawford, Columbia, Drew and Mount Olive and they have set the standard for people from much larger, more populous states. Surely, Mississippi has produced more pro football players and more Pro Football Hall of Famers per capita than any state.
How could this happen in a rural state, so small, so relatively poor? What is it? Is there something in the water, the soil? How has Mississippi produced so many Pro Football Hall of Famers, so many legends of the fall.
What is it?
What makes Mississippi high school football so special?
My take: It is because football is so much a part of our small-town culture. It is handed down from generation to generation, ever since Winona and Yazoo City squared off in that first high school football game more 108 years ago.
Towns rally around their teams. Friday nights, we go to football games. Sunday mornings, we go to church. Monday mornings we go to school or work and start talking about next Friday night’s game. It’s our culture, part of our fabric. It’s who we are.
It’s so rich a heritage: a skinny wide receiver named Rice, a drum major-turned-running back named Payton, a freckle-faced redhead named Archie, a coach’s son named Favre, a mama’s boy named Stevie McNair.
I grew up on it. Most of us did. I still remember the first high school football game I ever saw: Laurel vs. Hattiesburg, Thanksgiving Day, 1958. I still remember the score: Laurel 48, Hattiesburg 12. Afterward, my daddy introduced me to Laurel’s coach, Barney Poole, the great Army and Ole Miss end and College Football Hall of Famer. Barney picked me up with hands as big as a first baseman’s mitt. I thought he had to be the largest man in the world.
And that brings to mind one of my favorite stories in Mississippi sport. The Poole brothers – Buster, Ray and Barney, all future Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers – grew up in Gloster, where the school only went through junior high. When it came time for high school, Buster went off to Natchez, where he lived in a boarding house. In Natchez, Buster Poole was introduced to football. As all the Pooles, he was big, strong, rangy and broad-shouldered. He could run and catch and block and tackle.
As the story goes, Buster returned to Gloster for the holidays after that first autumn of high school and excitedly told his younger brothers, “Boys, have I found us a game we can play.”
And, boy, had he …
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.